Veterans across the state and across the nation are facing some serious issues.
After more than a decade of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, there isn’t a day that goes by where there aren’t news stories on depression, PTSD, homelessness, unemployment, injuries such as head trauma, and suicide.
Even if veterans aren’t suffering from these dramatic problems, they still have a good chance of facing a slow bureaucracy, ex-cessive paperwork, review panels and occasional political resistance in their efforts to utilize the benefits they earned in service of our country.
Work and advocacy to make sure veterans have access to the benefits they earned and deserve starts on the county level with county veterans service officers (CVSOs) and on the local level with service organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
Marty Caraway, Redwood County VSO, said there is no lack of political, social, health and economic issues for veterans to deal with on a daily basis.
“I would say that some of the most pervasive problems facing veterans today would be unemployment, education, compensation, pension and even public perception of vets’ benefits,” Caraway said.
According to figures from the Veterans Ad-ministration, unemployment and underemployment of Minnesota’s veterans is at a staggering 23 percent.
“These are not the veterans who are going to school and utilizing their GI Bill,” Caraway said. “These are veterans who are actively seeking work.”
Caraway said some of those numbers come from active duty soldiers who are being discharged from the military. Just like a private sector worker, military personnel are eligible for unemployment benefits when their contract ends, but a larger number of veterans in this predicament are coming from the recent downturn in the economy and civilian layoffs.
“When the economy hit tough times, a lot of older veterans got laid off,” Caraway said. “You Vietnam era veterans are still too young to collect Social Security, but may be too old for a company to take them on in career-type situation.
“They’re either trying to get by until they qualify for Social Security, or get a job to fill in the gap.”
There are no easy answers to the unemployment problem.
“There have been some initiatives that have taken place, however,” Caraway said. “The VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work) Act is designed to help with this problem.
“Let’s say you’re a motor transport mechanic in the Marine Corps. The Department of Transportation has an opening for a diesel mechanic. The way it was done last year was that person would have to get out of the Marine Corps, or apply while they were still in the corps, but apply for de-partment of transportation job, if they knew it existed, and hope for the best in getting it.”
Page 2 of 3 - The VOW Act, Caraway explained, shortens the loop be-tween government jobs and military personnel who are discharged or on the cusp of being discharged.
“Under the VOW Act, the Department of Labor had to reclassify every MOS (Mission of Service – or job) in the military to make it suitable or translate to civilian language,” Caraway explained. “After this translation is done, for example, the Department of Labor will help facilitate the department of transportation’s search for its diesel mechanics.”
Caraway said education on employer’s part and the military’s part on how military jobs translate into advantages for civilian jobs is key.
“These men and women coming out of the military have real experience, real leadership skills,” Caraway said. “We need to find a way for companies to see the benefits of hiring veterans. There are a lot of local companies around here that are doing a great job on hiring veterans, but we need a bigger push.”
On the education front, veterans have an incredible benefit, the Post 9/11 GI Bill, but it is suffering somewhat due to a slow bureaucracy that is understaffed and overloaded with cases.
“The Post 9/11 GI Bill is the best veterans benefit ever,” Caraway said, with no hesitation. “If you are going to school full-time, your tuition is going to be paid; your books are going to be paid for; and you will receive a monthly stipend of about $1,500 on average.
“This covers 30 months of schooling.”
The challenge vets face with this benefit is a delay in receiving it.
“There are veterans who are going to school now, who just got their August payment,” Caraway said. “That is a prorated payment for about three or four days at the end of August.
“They are two to two-and-a-half months behind in dispensing the payments. It’s putting some of these vets into a tough spot where they were expecting these funds, but because the GI Bill is so heavily used, the VA just can’t keep up.
“They need that money for rent, security deposits and make sure they’re paying their bills. It’s a great benefit but it can’t quite keep up.”
This delay is dogging compensation and pensions for veterans.
“When you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, compensation is given for a chronic condition that is service connected,” Caraway said. “There are a lot of rules and regulations governing compensation, as there should be, but some cases that are a slam-dunk, that should be approved in one day, aren’t. Because of a backlog claims can take four months or longer.
Page 3 of 3 - “The backlog is with guys that are getting out now is worse. Their ‘fast-track claims’ aren’t being handled in St. Paul or in the county where they live. All the claims from veterans discharged on the west coast go to Salt Lake City. From the east coast they go to Winston-Salem, N.C. When their claim is handled there, I can’t help them, and the ‘fast-track claim’ is taking up to 18 months to process.”
The same problem exists with pensions; they’re just taking too long to process.
Caraway said the benefits are there, for now, and agencies and people working with them are trying as hard as they can to serve the veterans, but there is room for improvement.
“There is some perception out there that veterans have a entitlement mentality, and this is wrong,” Caraway said. “They earned these benefits. That’s why it’s important for younger vets to get involved with service organizations.
“World War II vets are still the largest population of vets in these organizations. The importance of the younger generation getting involved with the DAV, VFW, American Legion or other service organization, are the benefits for the next generation of veterans. If we are not involved, these service organizations will go away. We need to make sure our veterans are taken care of, because they took care of us.”